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Covid-19: NHS Application

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 1 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they will take to encourage the uptake of the National Health Service COVID-19 application; and how the effectiveness of that application will be monitored.

My Lords, we have TV advertising, celebrity endorsement, stakeholder mobilisation, social media engagement and newspaper wraparounds. We have done an enormous amount to support the app launch, with a massive campaign—but the greatest promotion is a great product. Fifteen million downloads, 500,000 QR downloads, 8 million venue check-ins and thousands isolated suggest that the British public have embraced the app as a valued tool to protect the ones they love.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, on his birthday. The number of people downloading the app is important, but in assessing its effectiveness, what problems or elements of success will the Government look for, apart from numerical take-up?

My Lords, the primary purpose of the app is to break the chain of transmission. Therefore, alerting as many people who have been in close proximity to a Covid threat as we can is a primary objective. However, the app also does an enormous amount to provide information for those trying to understand the regulations in their local area. It also does a lot to support those in isolation and we very much hope to be able to connect the payments for isolation benefit with the app in later versions.

My Lords, the uptake and positive development of the Covid app is likely to be greater if it picks up on all the testing regimes, enables the user to enter a unique code that they have been given and is front and centre of having tests available to record the incidence of illness. Does the Minister agree that urgent, comprehensive testing and tracing is needed for care and health workers if all medical care is to return to normal levels, and for teachers and pupils if schools are to have the best chance of remaining open for all? Does he agree that the app would prove most effective if these goals were accomplished rapidly alongside the development of the app?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s observation. These are parallel developments and we are indeed working on them. It is important that the app captures all testing information. We are working extremely hard to ensure that all tests, wherever they come from, whether pillar 1 or pillar 2, are captured in the app. We are also doing an enormous amount to ensure that there are supporting measures for those who work in social care and teaching, so that they have the security of knowing that their workplaces are protected.

My Lords, I wish the Minister a happy birthday. So far, £35 million has been spent on the development and testing of the app, which is approximately £15 million more than any other western European country has spent on such app development. Other than the QR code, what functionality has that £15 million been spent on, which is not available in the app of any other western European country?

My Lords, the secret sauce of the app is the algorithm at its heart, which takes data from Apple and Google phones and the Bluetooth component, and applies a risk-scoring analysis that judges proximity, velocity and context to give a true assessment of risk. That is how we seek to avoid false positives and false negatives. We have invested in the algorithm in conjunction with Apple and Google and it is an incredibly important piece of added value. Without that algorithm, the app would not work properly.

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend on his birthday and I congratulate the Government on introducing this new technology. As he is aware, I am very supportive of this. I would be grateful if he could explain to the House what evidence there might already be from Scotland on the effectiveness of the Protect Scotland app in tracing contacts, ensuring isolation and reducing deaths.

My Lords, the Protect Scotland app has delivered huge value for the Scottish people. It has guided many to isolate and it has been downloaded a very large number of times. We seek to get the UK app and the Scottish app working together in the second version. We have learned an enormous amount by collaborating with Scottish colleagues and have gained enormous value from their learnings.

Does the Minister agree that the purpose of tracing is defeated if millions of people cannot download the app because their phones are a few years old, even models as recent as those from 2018? I discovered this and felt obliged to spend a great deal of money upgrading and took the risk of travelling to a phone shop and spending an hour there doing this. However, millions will not, especially elderly people and those who live in poorer, crowded areas. What can be done for the people who cannot download the app?

My Lords, I greatly regret that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, had to make that journey. That is a troubling thing for her to have had to do. I reassure her that 89% of the population have phones whose hardware and software is compatible. Even on today’s numbers, one-third of the 16-plus population of Britain has the app on their phone. This number is high enough to make the app extremely effective; it is an enormous penetration. While this does not account for absolutely everyone, it is terrific progress and we will build on that success.

My Lords, the Minister just gave a figure for the over-16s. In view of the outbreak of Covid in universities, what proportion of university students have accessed the app and actually used it? Am I right in thinking that it is accessible only if you are over 16? Why is this the case?

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Baroness’s question. There is a very good reason: the privacy arrangements of the app mean that we do not know who has downloaded it. This information is available only to those who have downloaded it. It is precisely because of those privacy arrangements that an enormous amount of trust is placed in the British people. However, I do not deny that it is frustrating that we do not have the kind of demographic insights that the noble Baroness quite reasonably asks for.

My Lords, I am delighted that this app has now been produced. Fifteen million adopters in a week is excellent news, and I genuinely congratulate the Minister on that. However, 34 countries are already using the ENX system with Bluetooth, and it is to be regretted that we are not ahead of them, but we are not. What conversations have the Government had with some of those countries to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes that they have made on their journey? Given the importance of mass take-up—which is important before going on to talk about other things—have the Government considered discussing with Apple, Google and mobile phone suppliers such as Samsung the possibility of putting the app straight on to people’s phones at the point of sale, or point of update, with of course the option for the customer to remove it, should they wish to do so?

The noble Lord has made a very detailed and technical inquiry. We are studying the ENX system very closely. However, as I mentioned earlier, the secret source of the British app is the algorithm that takes the data from Bluetooth and the phone and analyses it to give the risk assessment. Our view is that that algorithm is absolutely critical. Without it, the ENX system fires off alerts to anyone who has been proximate to another Bluetooth phone that has registered a positive test, even if they have only driven past that phone on the motorway. Those are exactly the kinds of circumstances that the British public made it crystal clear to us they simply would not tolerate. Therefore, we have put an enormous investment into that algorithm. We have had an enormous amount of interest from other countries, and we are happy to share that learning with companies as we develop our intelligence on it.

I wish my noble friend many happy returns on his birthday. Clearly, the app is a very useful tool. Does he imagine that the Government will use it in conjunction with the testing of international passengers arriving at airports? When might testing be rolled out at airports?

My Lords, version 1 does not have an international component to it, but that is something that we would seek to develop. I emphasise that the app in its current form is very much focused on providing a huge amount of personal privacy and is therefore not an appropriate vehicle for putting in place any form of surveillance or quarantine management. That would be in breach of our arrangements with our technical partners, Apple and Google. Therefore, although I cannot give my noble friend Lady McIntosh a complete answer, I would like to hint that perhaps this will not be the vehicle for accelerating airport testing.